Whatever happens in the playoffs, the 2012 NFL season is already the most dramatic and entertaining in league history. Surprisingly, it was due to a rare combination of design and remarkable happenstance.
The season started with replacement officials trying to decipher evolving rules and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ill-advised airing of dirty laundry in Bountygate but was salvaged and sensationalized by a troika of amazing rookie quarterbacks, unbelievable comebacks by two veteran superstars and mega-performances by Megatron, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and others.
Some of it was the result of a confluence of will and talent, such was the case in comebacks from injury by Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. Some of it was a mix of strategic evolution and unusual athleticism. Three teams made the playoffs because of talented rookie quarterbacks —Indianapolis with Andrew Luck, Washington with Robert Griffin III and Seattle with mighty mite Russell Wilson.
And some of the drama was as human and heart-tugging as Colts head coach Chuck Pagano battling back from cancer during the season and rejoining the team for the final regular season game.
But underlying all of this was the handiwork of a key component to every season, a man whose work is usually only mentioned via complaints —NFL scheduler Howard Katz.
By Sunday, Week 17’s games included 10 of 16 with playoff implications and the added excitement of numerous records on the brink — even for Hall of Fame coach John Madden, an unabashed 24-7 fan, contributor and protector of everything NFL. He surveys all on his Maddenplex multiscreen theater each week and by Sunday night was literally speechless. Well, sort of.
“I was screaming so much Sunday I lost my voice,” Madden said, hoarsely. “Incredible, incredible season. You can’t write stuff like that.”
Actually, you can. And as Madden further pointed out, Katz did.
Some of the season’s drama, was indeed authored by Katz, the former television executive who overcame constant criticism to craftily fashion the league’s schedule with a combination of art, science and a feel for drama.
So it might be said that the great ending to the 2012 season was actually scripted, as it were, back on April 16 and commemorated by an email to Goodell at 12:33 a.m. It reportedly said, “White smoke from the scheduling room.” That signaled that Katz had wrestled with more than 14,000 scheduling possibilities to create the one he believed would be best for 2012.
“Howard Katz is the mastermind of creating the NFL schedule,” Madden said. “For years, we had games at the end of the season that had little meaning. Starting in 2010, the league began to change that. Sunday’s final games of the season really showed the results. Most had playoff implications, and if not, then the games were at least between division rivals. Great, great ending.”
With his television experience, Katz was surely proud that Sunday’s collective ratings were the highest since 2006, when Sunday’s primetime package went to NBC. He had carefully sequenced Sunday’s schedule to make sure as many meaningful games as possible were in each broadcasting time frame.
“This is the annual ritual of finding out how stupid I am,” Katz said days after finishing that schedule in April. “We work for months and months in this room, and ‘What were they thinking?’ It comes with the territory.”
For this season, anyway, Katz certainly did his part to set the stage for the most dramatic season ever.
Frank Cooney is Publisher of The Sports Xchange Inc. and can be reached at email@example.com.